New York LaGuardia airport: AirTrain in danger of cancellation
There is never a dull day in politics, nor in the air transport business. In New York the two just came together into what could be a disaster movie.
No sooner had the FAA belatedly given the thumbs-up to the scheme to build a more-expensive-by-the-day ‘AirTrain’ people mover between public transport stations and La Guardia Airport than its biggest mover and shaker, the state Governor, Andrew Cuomo, stated he would resign over numerous political and personal scandals.
The scheme could still go ahead, but it seems many of the Port Authority’s staff are against it, along with local and national politicians and environmental protest groups. Emphasis may switch to a rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which has federal government backing.
Public-private partnerships to build direct and indirect airport-related infrastructure in the US have been on the rise, but the opposition to this scheme may bring them into question generally, as well as prompting another question – under what circumstances could an entirely private sector piece of infrastructure be built at, or connecting to, an airport in the present political climate?
- FAA approves LaGuardia (LGA) people carrier, but its biggest supporter is forced to resign.
- The LGA 'AirTrain' would be the third at New York’s major airports and would complete its renaissance.
- But there is political and environmental opposition to it.
- The price of the Air Train has increased fivefold since it was first proposed.
- Many of the Port Authority’s staff are against it and are now saying so.
- New York’s airports are not connected by an integrated public transport network.
- With the Governor gone, emphasis will fall again on the pressing need for a fresh New York-New Jersey rail tunnel.
- Alternative funding for the LaGuardia AirTrain would be difficult to access while the private sector stays on the outside looking in.
- The concept may be derailed forever; more likely postponed for several years.
USD2.1 billion AirTrain to La Guardia got the Green Light from the FAA...
A week is a long time in politics. In this instance three weeks is an eternity.
It was only on 20-Jul-2021 that an announcement was made to the effect that the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had approved a long-standing plan to build a USD2.1 billion AirTrain to New York’s La Guardia Airport, the (once-called) ‘third word’ edifice that has been modernised beyond recognition by way of two separate public-private partnership (PPP or P3) deals.
...but the New York state governor who proposed it got the Red Light
But in next to no time the proposal fell flat when its leading proponent, the New York (state) Governor Andrew Cuomo, said on 10-Aug-2021 that he would resign within 14 days following sexual harassment charges that followed many months of criticism of his handling of the pandemic in the state, and in particular the placement of elderly victims into nursing homes and the alleged manipulation of associated data.
He could stand for election again in 2022, but allegations of this nature are usually terminal.
As numerous politicians and environmental protection pressure groups had already aligned themselves against the LaGuardia AirTrain project, it may have fallen off the rails to the same degree as the governor’s career.
JFK’s AirTrain is almost 20 years old
The AirTrain in New York already exists in the form of AirTrain JFK, an 8.1-mile-long (13 km) elevated people mover system and airport rail link serving John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
The driverless system operates 24/7 and consists of three lines and ten stations within the New York City borough of Queens. It connects the airport's terminals with the New York City subway in Howard Beach, Queens, and also with the Long Island Rail Road and the subway in Jamaica, Queens.
Bombardier Transportation operates AirTrain JFK under contract to the airport's operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), which operates JFK, La Guardia and Newark Liberty airports and other smaller ones.
The AirTrain JFK map
That link was first recommended in 1968 and various schemes surfaced until the 1990s, although they were not carried out because of a lack of funding.
Construction of the current people-mover system began in 1998 and was subject to several lawsuits. The system opened in Dec-2003, after many delays. Since then, several improvements have been proposed for AirTrain JFK, including an extension to Manhattan.
All passengers entering or exiting at either Jamaica or Howard Beach must pay a USD7.75 fare, while passengers travelling within the airport can ride for free.
The system was originally projected to carry four million annual paying passengers and 8.4 million annual inter-terminal passengers every year, but it has consistently exceeded these projections since opening. In 2019 the system had more than 8.7 million paying passengers and 12.2 million inter-terminal passengers, so it can be considered a success by those criteria.
Newark’s AirTrain is a more appropriate model, but it is ageing and needs replacement
There is also a smaller AirTrain in place serving Newark Liberty Airport.
AirTrain Newark is a 3-mile (4.8 km) monorail system connecting the terminals at EWR and trains at the Newark Liberty International Airport Station on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), where transfers are possible to Amtrak and New Jersey Transit's Northeast Corridor Line and North Jersey Coast Line. The monorail opened in 1996, and as of Oct-2019, it is planned to be replaced.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey board approved the replacement project with an estimated cost of USD2.05 billion. Construction is expected to start in 2021 and be completed in 2024. A draft environmental impact statement was completed in Feb-2021 when the proposed opening date was shifted to 2026.
The train is free, except to and from the Amtrak/New Jersey Transit station, in which case the fare is included in the price of the train ticket.
Public transport between the New York airports is not integrated; more so in other comparable cities
So two such models are already in place, but it is not an integrated system by any measure.
There is no easy connection between, say, JFK and Newark airports, for passengers who might desire to make such a journey. And in the case of JFK, large parts of the metropolitan area remain separated from the system by requiring several changes, notably lower Manhattan, the Bronx and populated areas upstate, outside the city’s boundaries.
Then again, nor is there an integrated airport-to-airport rail system in London (the world’s biggest aviation market, ahead of New York), or Paris, or Moscow, but all three of them have actual or projected high-speed rail services to at least one airport to and from the downtown/central business area (to and from all airports in Moscow’s case), a fact which renders New York’s efforts almost prehistoric by comparison.
And in Bangkok, Thailand, the grand plan there is for a high-speed rail line that will connect both the city’s airports with downtown and each other, and also with the U-Tapao Rayong Pattaya airport, 100 miles to the south (which will then become Bangkok’s third airport).
A CAPA research report on Air-Rail Connections published in 2017 made extensive reference to New York’s existing AirTrains and to the then nascent LaGuardia AirTrain project.
Of that project it said:
“The most promising outlook is for ‘AirTrain LaGuardia,’ a 1.5-mile-long (2.4 km) elevated people mover that would, like its JFK cousin, connect with the subway (Line 7) and the L.I.R.R., in this case at Willets Point, where there is a station already built to serve the now demolished Shea Stadium and the nearby replacement, Citi Field (baseball). Again as with JFK it would be operated under contract to the Port Authority and Metropolitan Transit Authority, and might be constructed as a PPP (in addition to the two already in place for terminals at LaGuardia).
But that in itself is not an entirely satisfactory solution.
Criticism of the USD450 million scheme includes:
• That it would be slower than existing modes;
• That it would increase loads on the already crowded 7-line trains;
• That Willets Point is 20 stations away from the 34th Street (midtown) terminus of that line (though some peak express trains stop at only half of them);
• That passengers on transit journeys from parts of the city such as Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx would actually have a longer journey than they have now.”
Governor Cuomo has consistently championed the AirTrain as part of his plan to make LaGuardia a ‘world class travel hub’
Following the FAA approval and before the Cuomo resignation statement, PANYNJ and local media were projecting that construction work could begin before the end of summer 2021 and that AirTrain could open by 2025.
The decision was described as “a notable victory for Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, who has championed the project as an integral piece of his plan to transform La Guardia from an object of constant derision to a ‘world-class’ travel hub”.
However, FAA approval came over the objections of notable opponents such as the Congresswoman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat who represents parts of New York’s Queens borough where LaGuardia is situated (along with JFK, 20km to the south).
Also from the environmental group 'Riverkeeper', a non-profit environmental organisation dedicated to the protection of the Hudson River and its tributaries, as well as the watersheds that provide New York City with its drinking water. (The Hudson Valley has long been considered the birthplace of the modern American environmental movement.)
Both of them raised questions about why the AirTrain was the only plan for getting people to and from the airport to survive the project’s review.
Critics have also continued to target the AirTrain’s indirect route, raising, in a similar manner, the issues discussed in the CAPA research report.
To get to Manhattan, which is west of La Guardia, travellers would have to go the opposite way first — riding east to connect to the subway or a commuter train at a station next to Citi Field, the baseball stadium.
Port Authority officials have defended the route as being the least disruptive to the heavily built-up neighbourhoods that surround the airport.
Mr Cuomo and Rick Cotton, the Executive Director of PANYNJ, have billed the AirTrain as a “30-minute trip from Midtown Manhattan to La Guardia.” But that estimate is measured from the time of boarding a subway train along the 7 line or an L.I.R.R. train at Pennsylvania Station, both of which serve Willets Point.
Five times the original price
Moreover, the price tag has quintupled from the USD450 million Mr Cuomo estimated when he first proposed the project six years ago.
PANYNJ hopes to use fees collected from passengers at the airports it runs to help it pay for the AirTrain, but the FAA has not yet approved that idea, and may well not do so at all in the light of a potential hike in the passenger facility charge (PFC), the fee that almost all airline passengers in the United States pay in their ticket price.
The fee goes toward the upkeep and maintenance of airports, and is set up and capped according to US federal law. Legislation was introduced to remove a long-standing cap on PFCs in 2020, and they could rise from USD4.5 to USD7.5.
Alternative scenarios “not thoroughly investigated”
Localised neighbourhood politics are very much in fashion in the US right now, and the approval for the line flew in the face of criticism from neighbourhood activists and elected officials.
In May-2021 Ms Ocasio-Cortez had asked the FAA to refrain from approving the project in light of information unearthed by Riverkeeper. She argued that the documents showed that not all alternatives, including a subway link or ferry boats, had been thoroughly investigated.
She said: “This project would be built in the heart of one of the most heavily impacted communities by COVID-19, with many community members opposing the development.”
What exactly COVID-19 has to do with it is a mystery, but she added, not unreasonably, “It is critical that this project be held to the highest ethical and efficacy standards...”, then “...and it is clear that has not been the case to date.” It is ironic that ‘ethics’ have subsequently emerged to derail the project’s most robust proponent.
The project is “not a regional transit one" and is airport-specific
Steve Dickson, the FAA administrator, responded to Riverkeeper by saying that alternatives that could have had more benefits were ruled out because the main purpose of the project was to improve access to the airport, and that “it is not a regional transit project.”
As the aforementioned CAPA report pointed out, it is often the case around the world that where heavy or light rail lines to airports have been approved they have quickly been hijacked by politicians who perceive an opportunity to improve suburban routes at the same time. So what is intended to be a high-speed downtown-airport service becomes a slow multi-station ‘stopper’, with overcrowding caused by the confluence of air passengers and commuters.
Alternative funding methods are few and far between
As for the other possible funding sources, the sharp reduction in air travel caused by the pandemic has damaged the finances of the PANYNJ. The agency has asked for a USD3 billion federal bailout, but so far has received only a portion of the relief funds the government gave to all airports.
A source of future funds was recently confirmed by the passage of the 2,700-page long Infrastructure Bill, which was passed apparently without most of Congress and the Senate having read it.
The bill offers USD25 billion to airports over eight years (as part of a total USD1.2 trillion package in advance of anticipated approval of a USD3.5 trillion budget resolution). That sum is only as much in a single year to all US airports as PANYNJ alone seeks right now as a bailout, and largely for specific purposes, including environmental control measures.
It has to be said that the likelihood of any more funding coming out of the bill to help PANYNJ’s airports is slight, despite continuing allegations that only 23% of the bill is dedicated to what would normally be classed as ‘infrastructure’ and that more could be found.
There seems to be little chance of that happening while so much of it is being allocated to projects related to the ‘Green New Deal’ and social welfare programmes.
The 'Gateway' rail project in New York will account for almost USD12 billion in spending
There is another complicating factor in play in New York, namely the commitment of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to start work on the USD11.6 billion ‘Gateway Programme’ to repair and upgrade the only rail connection between New York and New Jersey. (Gateway is coincidentally the name of the consortium managing one of the LaGuardia P3 projects.)
This is a project that first surfaced in 2015 but which fell hostage to a stand-off between the President and Congress. According to some reports the walls of the existing tunnel could collapse.
The project entails building a new tunnel under the Hudson River and had faced opposition from Governor Cuomo, who had called for developers to pursue a different method for repairing the tunnels. The governor said that he wouldn’t pay “unless it is a smart, efficient, effective process”, adding, “If the federal government wants to do stupid, they can do stupid with their money. But we’re not going to do stupid with our money”.
With the Governor no longer in a position to influence events and PANYNJ staffers turning against the AirTrain (see below), the likelihood is that the initiative will again be with the Gateway project over one for a mainly (96% of seat capacity) domestic airport when national transport policy is heavily favouring rail over air.
Outright private sector development of the AirTrain is highly unlikely
This leaves a very large bond issue and/or some other form of private sector development for the AirTrain as the only realistic option.
But even that is unrealistic because of (a) the size of a bond issue versus growing public opposition to the scheme and (b) wholly private sector development of a transport project in the US is very rare, and especially so in the air transport segment. No municipal, county or state government wants to lose control over them, just as they have been reluctant to see their airports privatised.
Moreover, it would probably be regarded as an unwelcome development with whoever takes Governor Cuomo’s place in the short term.
The Port Authority’s Mr Cotton has indicated that without more federal aid, it will have to reconsider its intentions to improve transportation infrastructure in the New York region generally, including new terminals at JFK International (which would be P3s involving airlines).
The RfP had already been issued before the bombshell announcement
The Port Authority has already issued a request for proposals (RfP) to design, build and maintain the La Guardia AirTrain, anticipating choosing a winning bidder by mid-2022 for project completion in 2025, but has not yet approved any contracts (despite Governor Cuomo having apparently made plans for a ribbon-cutting to announce the start of construction).
PANYNJ’s senior management believes the project would “help drive the region’s economic recovery” by creating 3,000 union construction jobs and “more than USD500 million in contract opportunities for businesses owned by women and minorities” and for businesses based in Queens.
PANYNJ staff opponents come out of the woodwork, anonymously
However, the sudden and dramatic events surrounding Governor Cuomo’s decision to tender his resignation on 24-Aug-2021 led to a clamour among Port Authority executives, who want the agency to halt the AirTrain proposal altogether.
Some even sent an (anonymous) letter immediately to Mr Cotton, expressing that the outcome was what they had been expecting, given that President Biden had urged the Governor to resign, alleging that “for too long, Governor Cuomo and his staff have repeatedly pushed the agency to make non-transparent, politically motivated decisions, including decisions that squander the trust and money of our bondholders, customers, and the general public”.
The letter asked for the Port Authority’s Inspector General to look into whether Governor Cuomo exerted “undue influence” on agency officials that caused them to “manipulate” a federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement process to approve the LaGuardia AirTrain. This rather than approving other alternatives such as a subway extension or dedicated bus lanes on roads to the airport such as the Grand Central Parkway, which is the principal highway from Queens, Manhattan and The Bronx.
The private sector could step up the plate, but would probably not be allowed to
In conclusion, on balance the LaGuardia AirTrain project looks likely to be delayed further by this political upheaval and, at worst, to be cancelled altogether.
That would raise questions about other actual or potential P3 schemes for airport-related infrastructure around the country (and there are a growing number of them, including other people movers).
In the light of the paucity of government support for air transport there is an opportunity for the private sector to devise a new business model for building and operating such ‘last mile’ rail lines into airports, but the political opposition it would face would be enormous.